Sometimes the profoundest truths are best expressed through stories that teach us to laugh at our human foibles. Such are the stories of the mythical Mulla Nasruddin, Islam's great comic foil. The Mulla is a village simpleton and sage rolled into one. He enjoys laughing at himself and invites us to join him.
This time of outrage over insult to Islam and to the Prophet Muhammad hardly seems like a time to laugh, either for Muslims or for non-Muslims. But the Mulla would caution us all not to be swayed by the "experts "who would shape our opinions or inflame our passions. They don't always get it right. An esteemed doctor, for example, came to the Mulla's sickbed, examined him carefully, and then said to the sick man's wife, "Madam, I am sorry to inform you that your husband has passed away." The Mulla protested in a feeble voice, "But I'm alive! I'm alive!" "Quiet!" his wife retorted. "Don't argue with the doctor!"
No matter how well-meaning others' advice may seem, our first obligation is to consult the truth in our own hearts. The Quran teaches, and Muslim hearts know, that violence and murder are unethical and immoral. "First consult your heart," the Prophet Muhammad advised, but by this he meant the purified heart, not the heart that runs headlong into crimes of passion.
No matter how offensive the slander against the Prophet may be, in reality it is not the Prophet who has been bruised, but our own ego. The Prophet neither requests nor needs our protection. It is our ego that feels injured and calls for revenge. And when we hear insults against our religion, let us ask ourselves: if someone spits at the sky, does this stain the sky? Some Muslims may be tempted to overreact due to prolonged pain and anger about political and economic injustices of the past. But is it not time to heal and empower ourselves? How else can we live up to the trust that God reposes in us? "Repel the evil deed with the one that is better. Then lo! He with whom you shared enmity will become as though he were a bosom friend" (Quran 41:34).
To those who savor their righteous anger, the 13th century sage Rumi cautioned, "A conceited person sees some sin, and the flames of Hell rise up in him. He calls that hellish pride 'defense of the Religion'; he doesn't notice his own arrogant soul." That untamed soul has a much-exaggerated opinion of itself, as the Mulla could attest. One moonlit night he was horrified to see that the moon had fallen to the bottom of a well. Worried about the disastrous consequences for Islamic observances, which are based on cycles of the moon, the Mulla rushed home to get a rope, tied it to a hook, and returned to rescue the moon. After dropping the hook into the well, he heaved and pulled until something came loose and the momentum threw him on his back. Lying there, he was delighted to see the moon restored to its proper domain in the sky. "Thank God I came along!" he crowed in self-satisfaction.
Although it is satisfying to trot out verses of beauty in the Quran, there is a serious gap between the Quranic ideal and the political reality on the ground. Living our faith is a life-long challenge. During a question-and-answer period, a man livid with anger shouted out that if there are verses of peace in the Quran, how is it possible that Muslims are perpetrators of the worst crimes in modern history? Before I could answer, amazingly, several people jumped to their feet to pose the following questions: how is it possible that despite injunctions of love and justice in respective Holy Books, Christians committed the Holocaust in Germany and practiced racial segregation in the U.S., Jews continue to occupy Palestine, and Buddhists engaged in atrocities against Hindus in Sri Lanka?
The answer is that we avoid the inner work of transforming our ego and opening our hearts to our fellow beings. The primary purpose of religion is to guide us to become better human beings. This involves examining and diminishing the whole cluster of human failings that the Mulla laughs about: egocentricity, self-righteousness, exclusive claim to "the truth"--all of which have brought us untold suffering. It is essential to transform our selves through spiritual practices.
The Mulla knows how inconvenient this work is. One night he was out looking for a lost key under the streetlight, and his neighbors tried to help but with no success. Finally they asked him where he might have dropped it. "Actually," he said, "I lost it in my house." Bemused, they asked why he didn't look for it there. "Simple," he replied; "there's no light in my house, but the light out here is bright." When we lose our peace of mind over some insult or disappointment, too often we look outside of ourselves for what is lost. We work on the externals, but the truth is, we lost our equanimity and peace within our own hearts. This inner work is more difficult and inconvenient because the light is dim. Yet, it is the only work that will heal our hearts and our world.
There is light, guidance and beauty in the Quranic verse, "Wherever you turn, there is the Face of Allah" (2:115). Like it or not, the person who has offended us is part of the Face of Allah. We must not confuse behavior with being. Behavior may be evil or reprehensible, but a person's being is sacred. We are all a part of God, interconnected and bound together. At a surface level, this interconnectedness is not evident. The Mulla was sleeping in the grand mosque in Mecca where the sacred Kaaba is located. His feet pointed towards the Kaaba. This enraged some Meccans who woke him and told him how insulting and sacrilegious it was to place his feet toward the House of Allah. "Very well," said the Mulla. "Please take my feet and put them in the direction where Allah is not." The Meccans left the Mulla alone.
The Quran urges us to connect positively with all our fellow humans. "Let not some among you laugh at others...nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other nor call each other by offensive names" (49:11). True, we do not all belong to the same nation, tribe or religion, but that is by divine design, "that you may come to know each other," and " the most highly regarded of you in the sight of God is the one who does the most good. " (49:13).